Identity Crisis

I accept that some of the following is contradictory. I make no apologies for this. If anything I sense it helps demonstrate self confusion & ennui.

identity crisis

 noun         PSYCHIATRY

a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

The Upton Park Academy, Liverpool’s Red Machine, The Crazy Gang, even Dirty Leeds. Some, like those mentioned here might be more publicly obvious than others, but every football club has their own identity. Even Milton Keynes, the most dislikable of all football clubs, have their shamelessly franchised identity – albeit one I’d rather chop both my legs off than join their contemptible revelry in.

And then there is us. The ultimate 3rd level football club. A rather homely bungalow located in an area of high rise neighbours, always looking for that next step forward but never quite bridging the gap. Over the years I think we’ve also enjoyed a reputation for developing our own players, playing the game in the right manner and being financially responsible. We also used to be just about the last lower league team you’d want to draw in any cup competition, liking nothing more than the opportunity to blood the nose of any team who’d get ahead of themselves. Cinderella in steel toe caps and a butcher’s apron, if you like.

But it’s the 3rd level stats that probably define us more than anything. Most games in the 3rd tier, more points at this level than any other, most draws, most defeats and most home wins. The recent victory against Oxford pulled us level with Bournemouth for most wins, so that will also become ours soon. A Football Club is, more often than not, defined by its history & aspirations and ours is pretty obvious.

Which has recently left me wondering why a club that is such an integral part of English football’s 3rd tier suddenly finds it quite so financially challenging to compete at this level.

Indeed, whilst spending power is important, it never used to be the primary solution to being competitive in this division – as both the Graydon miracle and (conversely) Sheffield United’s five years of comedic failure prior to getting it right last year proved. Money always provided greater opportunity but long term success was built from the foundations.

Similarly, Dean Smith’s now famous blueprint looked destined to deliver what our budgetary impotence couldn’t. Passing football built around a conveyor of young, hungry and (most importantly) improvable footballers. It wasn’t perfect; the exit door was constantly ajar to the more productive and most improved. Similarly, those long runs without winning tested (and broke) the patience levels of some, but there was a visible methodology, a clear path of travel. Something told me we were into something good.

Good coaching that consistently improved our own players, a club wide set of playing principles, a recruitment philosophy based around signing players who could (and would) be improved, providing youth with a platform to be the best they could be. The five year plan that the entire club bought into came within a whisker of defying financial gravity and almost got us up. That identity as an ambitious passing side that developed youth and improved players who’d got lost elsewhere has arguably never shone brighter.

A smidgen over 24 months later and the team Smith left behind is disturbingly unrecognisable, with the “possible” section of Smith’s brutally cutting leaving statement looking a million miles away. Forget the Premier League being a possibility, right now we’re as far from the Championship and Smith’s blueprint as I think I can ever remember. Our sporting challenge marooned amid a fog of six month player loans, bridal fairs, and landfill motown gigs.

Which brings us beautifully to WFC The Venue. Birmingham-Walsall.

I honestly can’t think of anything that screams identity crisis more than this. Because when a football club, particularly one with its roots quite so directly fixed on its doorstep, doesn’t have the courage or belief in the name of the town it represents, its ultimate brand, I begin to wonder what it does have faith in.

To be absolutely fair, I can see that Birmingham-Walsall works for Next & Ikea, multi-national commercial giants with no links to the town. It’s also used by the Village Hotel & Holiday Inn Express at J10, despite being a £30 taxi ride away from the city named in their branding, so it’s clear that we’re following a commercial pattern here, rather than selling our home town short in isolation. However, in all the other examples, none of the aforementioned businesses has their identity linked to, or an affinity with, the town of Walsall.

They’re shopping outlets and bedrooms branded in garish corporate colours with an ultimate responsibility to their shareholders & banks, utilising zero hour contracts and cheap floor space to maximise global revenues. And before we criticise, if they don’t then someone else will. But be assured, the moment they’re no longer profiting from their square footage in Walsall they’ll be off, evacuating those cut price, out of town premises faster than a rat disappearing up the proverbial drainpipe. They’re not the same as a football club, they don’t have to be.

Unless you’re MK Dons, for obvious reasons, then a football club operates by a different set of principles to that. Their town gives them a name, a character and a personality, blending with geography and history to form each club’s individual identity. The lower leagues are awash with clubs and towns that symmetrically reflect one another – with nothing saying Portsmouth, Barnsley, Mansfield or Colchester clearer than their respective football clubs. Indeed, I challenge you to tell me something that’s more Burnley than a 2/3rds full Turf Moor baying for opposition blood. And you can be fully assured that hell would freeze over before the Turf Moor faithful ever accepted a BFC The Venue : ManchesterBurnley. No, Nay, Never, as the song goes.

Which prompts the question, why compromise your identity and alienate chunks of your fan base in search of an extra sale or two from the geographically gullible? The old song we retort with never challenges the assumption that we are shit, rejecting the notion that we came from Birmingham was always considered the priority. We sing “We don’t come from Birmingham” for a pretty good reason – because we fucking don’t.

And if the club doesn’t understand this or chooses to overlook it then we’re probably even further from understanding and re-finding our identity that even I fear we are.

#MyClubMyTown? #BirminghamWalsall? #NoThanks

From where I’m looking and what I conclude, the stalling of progression in positive sporting direction probably suits the business at the moment. For all of Jeff Bonser’s faults, and I suspect that even his believers will accept there might be a couple, the only time this club has haemorrhaged money in his near quarter century of responsible trading and rent collecting is that early 2000’s spell in what is now the Championship. Like it or not, his record of keeping a controlled rein on the finances of the business is watertight and it rightly defines his time here.

Granted that ITV Digital collapse a decade ago clearly affected our/his financial plans and business model at that time but one look at the financial imbalance of the division right now and the hundreds of millions being collectively lost by the Championship 24 today (£361m in 2015/16 & estimated to be in excess of £400m last season) and I think that if the club fronted up and said the Championship is off their immediate radar then they’d be able to make a listenable case. We might not like what’s being said, indeed its a horrific thought, but the truth will hurt occasionally.

The excellent Price of Football blog produces some remarkable data on football finances and their excellent coverage of The Championship (and clubs similar to us) makes particularly grim reading. A recent article on Millwall demonstrates the real difficulty that one of our traditional third tier companions has experienced in balancing sporting competitively and financial stability both at League 1 level and in aiming for a position higher than 22nd in the league above.

The blog suggests that the previous five years, where 19th in the Championship was Millwall’s highest finishing position, generated total losses (before player sales) of £35.4m. Debts are estimated at £18m and weekly losses at present are a smidgen over £100000.

Below is a direct quote from the blog, which should offer a flavour of the deep financial commitment of Millwall’s generous owner John Berylson

“Berylson’s investment increased further in 2016/17 as he invested a further £3 million in the club via a new share issue. This takes his total investment to just over £56 million, in the form of shares and loans.

Realistically, Berylson will have to subsidise the club by a minimum of £5 million a year for the foreseeable future, unless promotion to the Premier League is achieved.”

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a pretty substantial commitment.

Over at Bristol City, another regular lower league opponent, the tale is similar, only more expensive. Bankrolled by Steve Lansdown to the tune of £118m and a with wage bill of £20.9m (ours is around £3.4m) City – before player sales – run at a loss of £370k per week. The past two seasons in the Championship produced finishing positions of 18th & 17th and left them with combined losses of £33.6m. With a wage/income ratio at Ashton Gate running at 99% (meaning £99 in every £100 received is spent on wages) it doesn’t take long to see why the sustainable focussed Bonser would baulk at a similar regime on his own doorstep, irrespective of if he actually had the resources to fund a similar methodology.

Brighton, another long-term lower league comrade, and one who are no strangers to rattling buckets, ran a £1/2m weekly deficit in the final years chasing their recently found Premier League riches. As with Bournemouth, again no strangers to either League 1 or bucket rattling, their promotion wasn’t quite the all-consuming fairy tale the media like to portray, more a percentage based conclusion to outspending your rivals.

All of the above point to the conclusion that the financing of football has moved on and the days of Wheldon and Bonser running sustainable businesses appear incompatible with sporting competitively today, even at League 1 levels. It seems evident that Dean Smith saw this and whilst his exit was clumsy, selfish and particularly poorly timed his summation that it was a “no brainer” has proven itself to be pretty much spot on. Like I said, the truth hurts sometimes.

So who are we? And what are we? Publicly the club appears to maintain that establishing itself in Championship is its absolute goal, a boast that is significantly easier to make than it is to convince as credible. Simply looking at the numbers – both ours and others, the (unsustainable) stretch that similar clubs have had to reach and the way our own five year plan crumbled once it’s key architect departed leaves me to severely doubt if Championship status is achievable or sustainable under the current hierarchy and business model. For a notoriously risk averse business, such a progression looks a lot more than a step too far right now. More a lighthouse staircase.

As for even considering surviving in the Championship, a division so grossly distorted by the blinkered chase for Premier League riches and the failure funding payments on departure, its apparent that you don’t need a business plan as much as you need deep pockets, vast reserves of cash and the nerve to not worry about how quickly you’re going through it. And that just isn’t us.

So who are we?

Are we a football club being run in the right manner – a bastion of doing things the right way but increasingly seeing ourselves as a goldfish in a school of piranha? Are we a solid entertainment & conference business haemorrhaging hard earned profits to a cash thirsty football team who only carry part of our branding? Or are we nothing more than a pension fund contributor running under the cloak of a sporting ambition. Or something else?

Honestly, my heart says Championship, my eyes say League 1 but my head fears its League 2.

The romantic in me concludes that we’re a 1950s Aston Martin in decent condition that’s been housed in a barn and waiting years for someone to open the doors. Spend a few quid, add a bit of fresh air, love, polish and a decent service and we’ll be ready to roar again. The cynic in me sees a rusty taxi, lubricated with cheap oil and held together with scrap yard spares and back street tig welding with a budget Halfords stereo invariably housing a mix-tape of landfill motown. Run it into the ground because its knacker yard bound.

The reality is somewhere in between, reality is where we are today – where Lincoln City is seen as a better long term option, where two year stays and six month loans are the norm, where staying at a level we’ve spent more time in than anyone else is considered a success, where a manager is still to win a single knockout game, where our management team livestreaming reserve fixtures is considered scouting and where squad quality declines alarmingly on a transfer window by transfer window basis. Where the freehold issue simultaneously protects us and complicates our future. Where we’re a season and a half on from missing out on promotion by one goal.

Yes, it could be worse. It could also be better.

But where we are and what level we’re at matters little in the grand scheme of things. Like so many of us, Walsall is my town, my team and I’m ridiculously proud of them both. Even if I’ve no idea of who we are and what we’re about. The club also know this, just as they know that their boundaries are more elastic than the aforementioned Next & Ikea. Piss us about, feed us garbage and we’ll still return for more – for the football supporter there is no alternative provider.

I’d love to boycott and I genuinely admire those who do, but I can’t. I just can’t. Leaving on 80 minutes is the best I can offer.

For better, for worse, forever – none of us follow this football club because it’s easy. It isn’t and it never will be. Whether it be Arsenal, Bradford, Coventry or Darlaston, the opponent is irrelevant, it’s Walsall we go to see and the Walsall identity we both buy into and help to define. We are Walsall.

But the game I love, and the competition we (try to) compete in has been contaminated by money. It appears to have changed forever and I’m not sure we’ve morphed with it. I don’t even think that I’d want us to. Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? Honestly, i have no idea.

 

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Deflection Tactics & The Importance of Protest

Every football fan should have the right to say “I am unhappy“. The right to protest should be safeguarded and defended, as protests play an important part in the civil, socio-economic, political, and cultural life of not just football fans, but every civilisation on Earth.

In 2010, a group of supporters tried to raise awareness regarding the pension fund and freehold issues at Walsall FC (and of course, many years before this too). The pension fund, is, of course, in the name of Jeff Bonser – owner and proprietor of Walsall. Questions were asked, feelings made and Cypriot flags taken, but one of the lingering issues at Walsall from those days was when the club inadvertently banned supporters for daring to question the status quo of the club, but, even more worrying, the club took down and destroyed a flag that simply read ‘Freedom of Speech‘. Is that ok?

Freedom of Speech issues at Walsall FC.

Historically, protests have often inspired positive social change and the advancement of organisations, and they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world. Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed society and fanbase.  They enable individuals and groups to express dissent and grievances, to share views and opinions, to expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand that the authorities and other powerful entities rectify problems and are accountable for their actions. This is especially important for those whose interests are otherwise poorly represented or marginalised. Digital technologies, such as online forums, Twitter and Facebook, offer new opportunities and challenges to protests, and they are used both as a crucial medium for enabling protests to take place and a platform for protest. Technological advancements have also significantly enhanced the ability of governments to infringe and potentially violate human rights in protests.

Yet football clubs like Walsall FC too often treat protests, or dissension as either an inconvenience to be controlled or a threat to be extinguished.

Fast-forward to January 2018 and increasing discontent with the way Walsall FC is obvious to see. The atmosphere at home games is appalling, the apathy to the club we love is worrying, and the disconnect between the fans the board is of severe concern (See Marshy’s column for a brilliant view on this).

No better evidence for the problems with the club is the Fans Focus Meeting going ahead tonight. Sure, we have been to fans focus meetings before – but this one is different. It is absolutely clear to anyone reading the forums, shouting at Franksy at WM in the car, on Twitter, Facebook, and whomever you sit next to at the game – that Walsall fans want answers from one man: Jeff Bonser.

Jeff, why aren’t you coming to the meeting?

Deflection Tactics

We have earnt the right to be sceptical when it comes to Walsall Football Club. For years now, we haven’t heard anything from our owner. At a time when the fanbase needs leadership more than anything. Where is he? Where are the statements in the press? Where is the public backing of our manager? What are our aims for the future?

We can ask these questions tonight, however we will get the same answer “Only Jeff can answer that“. But this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go. It is extremely important that Walsall fans make clear that we are unhappy not just with Jon Whitney, but with the governance and future of our club. A strong showing will help strengthen the message of unity and unhappiness within our ranks.

It is completely obvious that this fans focus meeting has been called, not to pacify the fans with answers to the real questions we want answering – but to try and quell our protest. Jon Whitney has been rolled out to divert attention away from the main questions, and dilute the conversation about Jeff, the pension fund, and the future.

Jon Whitney should not be manager of Walsall FC, but he shouldn’t be wheeled out in front of baying supporters to pay lip service and divert folks ire away from Bonser, Gamble, Mole and Pomlett. I am told Whitney asked to do this, but it is up the club to protect him. We forget he has served our club for over a decade, and whilst he is not a manager, he should be treated better by his employers. Tonight is not really the avenue for questioning things on the pitch – that’s what a “Meet the Manager” night is for. This meeting is to discuss things off the pitch (which, of course, affect things on it).

Why? Because this is the reason why we aren’t happy. We aren’t happy with the team, we aren’t happy with the manager, we aren’t happy with being referred to as ‘The Venue. Birmingham‘, but most importantly, we aren’t happy with a man who has complete contempt and ignorance of his supporters. We aren’t happy we have become a sideshow for the ‘Venue’.

Does anything give better evidence that the club doesn’t understand it’s own fanbase by advertising itself as being in Birmingham?

Walsall fans have become apathetic and fractured over the years. However, one thing that protests give is unity and the chance for people to come together all with the same purpose. I believe that protests will help to unite our club. Let’s get some passion back, and enjoy out football club again,

So, the right to protest is yours. Don’t let the club attempt to dilute your anger and dissatisfaction by trying to turn focus to Whitney. Ask why Whitney is there. Ask what the future holds – but don’t ask about chips.

Enough is Enough.

This time last year, I wrote an article here on the No Nobhead Policy (The Trial of Jon Whitney), that questioned the performance of our manager only one month into his first season as manager. I felt slightly awkward questioning a man so early into his reign:

I hope this blog post could be discarded and (virtually) burnt if we go on a 10 game winning run. I really hope JW can learn, adapt and turn our current form around. He deserves the time – but not too much time.

We aren’t as patient as you Jon. (September, 2016). 

Learn. Adapt. Patience. Words most Walsall fans were muttering behind closed doors through the throes of Walsall FC during the 2016/17 season. Jon Whitney has (I almost wrote ‘had’) earnt the respect of Walsall supporters. From rejecting our friends from the Golden Graveyard, to superb efforts as our physio, and his general enthusiasm for the job, JW has been a constant positive presence throughout his time at the club – except for the last 12 months. Surprisingly, I think we have been very patient with Whitney. From countless debacles, non-performances, bizarre subs and borderline-delusional media statements, the fans have, in general, stuck with the project.

But not anymore.

Whitney is not showing any progression nor any sign he has learnt the lessons we have been craving he do so. We do not adapt in-game. I’ve lost count the amount of times opposition have changed tactics mid-games and Whitney has stood motionless, scratching his head. A new ‘issue’ from this year concerns the constant changing of formations, to direct long ball game we are now employing. It is boring, not entertaining, and we aren’t very good at it. I am not suggesting the ‘Dean Smith’ philosophy is the only way we should play – if a style of football is effective and brings results – then fair enough. However, the club have waxed lyrical for years in the press and in focus meetings about the football DNA that has been instilled in this club. What is happening now? Surely, the youth players who have been brought up on a philosophy of possession-based attacking football do not fit the current mantra of on Whitney’s Walsall? Where do they fit in? Will they progress? Will our business model of selling young talent continue?

Given this list, The superb One Pod Beyond recently asked the question (Latest One Pod Beyond):

Has Whitney gone past the point of no return…?” 

PR Nightmare

Last September, I analysed Jon Whitney’s comments in the press:

Jon uses a lot of personal pro-nouns when talking about the team and club – but only in seemingly positively-spun phrases. He has repeatedly said ‘I know what to do next’, ‘it hurts me’, ‘I am hurting more than most.’. This would be less of a problem if he didn’t use ‘they’, ‘certain individuals’ and ‘the players’ when talking about losses and mistakes with negative connotations. We can see how this might annoy or irritate some of the players. Of course, this is conjecture that some may be annoyed, however there is a pattern in his use of pronouns as a function of who is being blamed.

This pattern of ‘Me, Me, Me and I’ has continued. When we win, we have heard ultra-positivity and self-gratification. We lose, and the players are hung out to dry. It is absolutely no shock to anyone that near enough every senior pro from 12 months ago has left the club. It is very easy to conform to rumours about Jon falling out with players. If lighting strikes once, then I don’t think it’s valid to infer such things as JW falling out with players. However, it appears that lightning has struck several times on a very specific oak tree, leaving behind the charred textual remains of the names of players recently past.

I am absolutely sure the club cannot be happy with the continued absurd comments made in the press. Who can also forget Jon suggesting the club’s budget being spent, to then issue an official club statement absolutely contradicting his earlier comments – with him also helping write it. I have got my head in a muddle just writing that. Who can also forget Jon saying that this season we would not have as many loans – to then sign 5 loan players. The list goes on. Given I am a massive saddo, I have actually gone through all of Whitney’s statements in press…Here are a selection of some Whitneyisms from just this season.

Actual real things Jon Whitney has said this season

“I am sure it will get smoother and a lot of fans will get back on the bandwagon and positivity will return… “It is very easy to look at negatives all the time. It is difficult to pick positives and that is why people try and look for a chink in my armour.”
August 12th.

Slightly patronising, suggesting those who dared to voice their opinions against the style of football, subs, and current situation at the club are just on a ‘bandwagon’. Also note the use of the phrase “chink in my armour”, as if the negativity is directed at him, for no apparent reason.

“We got the goal and I thought we would go on and win it. But sometimes having a man sent off can actually help you.” Post-game Bristol Rovers away. September 9th.

Incredible. Apparently having a player sent off is now a positive. Our in-game management at Bristol Rovers was poor. To lose in the manner that we did was unforgivable.

“Good teams bounce back. That is what we have done in the past. And that is what we will do tonight.” Pre-game before Rotherham. September 12th”

We didn’t bounce back. We lost 5-1.

“I apologise to the supporters. You can have one of those performances a year. You look back to Rochdale last year. They can’t shy away from this. They have to come in and be accountable.” Post-game Rotherham September 12th.

It is now apparently ‘ok’ to lose 5-1 once a year? It is never ok to lose 5-1 once a year.

“For the group of lads to be written off after a 30-minute bad performance at Rotherham, I think is a little bit unfair. ” September 16th

30 mins of a bad performance? We were hopeless for 90 minutes.

“I thought we saw some tired legs”. Post-Game Coventry. October 3rd

Apparently, changing 6 of your side, and playing in early October means that your team is tired – playing against a league two side.

“I don’t think the players should come off to boos… I will stay out and take that if you want – I won’t run in and hide….I’ll stand and listen to the criticism, but leave the players because they gave everything out there.” Post-game Blackpool. October 14th

The boos and resentment were not aimed at the players Jon – they were aimed at you. The bizarre decision to leave a toothless Bakayoko and take off Agyei, coupled with long channel-hoofball has left the fans angry and incredulous. Further this idea that he stands out and takes the criticism is delusional. After the Rotherham and Wigan debacles, where fans were actively making their opinions heard against him – Jon didn’t even look at  the away support. He couldn’t get down the tunnel quick enough.

So here we sit, only two months or so into a season nearly already over. Our record now reads 4 wins in 26. It is not good enough. To answer the question posed by the wonderful facial-haired maestros on One Pod Beyond, “Is Jon Whitney past the point of no return?

Yes. He is. He can’t come back from this. When you lose the fans, the writing is most certainly on the wall. A wall daubed with the names of his victims, Osbourne, Jimmy, Sammy, Lairdy and co.

Enough is enough.

Walsall FC (The board and our glorious leader) must act to protect Jon. For all the negatives, moans, groans and loans, there have been 10 years where Jon Whitney has been a loyal servant to this football club. The club must take Jon out of the firing line, protect his legacy, protect our club, and save Jon from some of the (deserved) negative comments coming his way. I am not advocating a peaceful, apathetic approach. I believe in freedom of speech (Freedom of Speech at Walsall FC…), and the way Jon has acted throughout the last 12 months, the way he has chosen to represent himself in the media, means he should get as good as he gives in all honesty.

 

Goodbye Jimmy Goodbye

“I’ve been open and honest with Jimmy and I’ve told him I don’t see him playing many minutes for me with the way I want to play this season.”

“A couple of weeks into pre-season, as a coaching staff, we felt we needed more of a physical presence at the back.”

“I’m not closing the door on Jimmy but I don’t see him playing many minutes with the way I want to play.”

“We want Kory to realise his potential and with Matty we are at a stage where we feel we can make him technically better and make him a big player for this club in the future.”

All of the above coming courtesy of Joe Massi’s Express & Star interview with Whitney, published on July 31st this summer.

And whilst I see no benefit in picking through the bones of another awful interview I believe the somewhat defensive tone projected by the interviewee and the general nonsense included – particularly the back end of the final quote – suggest that even in dropping to National League North level James O’Connor will be enjoying his football significantly more than if he’d stuck around here.

However, that we’ve cast aside a player of JOC’s gravitas and standing quite so unceremoniously is pretty disconcerting. I have no doubt that the Football Club concluded matters in the correct manner, did everything by the book and found a fair and mutually agreeable settlement. I also fully accept that it’s the manager (and Club’s) prerogative to choose who they want but in a time where every decent player seems to walk away from us, usually at the very first opportunity, there’s something of an unfortunate aftertaste to how O’Connor has been offloaded.

I also feel that it’s worth noting that I understand the importance of creating room for Kory Roberts to get the game time he needs to develop. That is obvious, although the same kind of thinking doesn’t appear to apply to the equally capable Liam Kinsella. Similarly I get (to a degree) why Jon felt we needed a bit more physicality. Bradford, and other sides with a similar style, have regularly unsettled us in recent times because we don’t deal with physicality well. I also firmly believe that the club should be constantly looking to improve upon what we have and no player is irreplaceable.

But physicality at the expense of quality? No thanks. Abandoning arguably the best defender at the club, because he doesn’t fit into a patently outdated playing style? No thanks. Change for the sake of change? No thanks. Offloading the clubs own talent and replacing them with loaned players? No thanks. Dumping players whose face doesn’t fit? No thanks

And whilst there is zero factual evidence to suggest the ‘face doesn’t fit’ theory is in any way correct, the defensiveness of the manager’s response, the nonsensical logic in dumping our most experienced defender for a borrowed replacement and the short time frame in which the decision appears to have been made do little to conclusively disprove this theory. Similarly, the words Isaiah and Osbourne continuing to echo in the background are unhelpful.

I also can’t help going back to the final day defeat at home to MK and the barely hidden criticism of the player. I noted in this blog’s end of season review “JOC and his agent might be concerned about next season’s employment following Whitney’s thinly veiled criticism/finger pointing in the aftermath of the MK debacle. The end might be nigh”. Singled out, albeit behind a cling film thin layer of collective blame, it was pretty evident that things weren’t right. The writing appeared on the wall long  before a couple of weeks into pre-season and it was about as obvious as it gets.

I’ve never been on the training ground or dressing room so I can’t possibly be certain on how O’Connor behaves but the evidence from the press and colleagues however is significantly stacked in favour of JOC being a pretty good professional. And nothing I’ve ever seen on the pitch from him would change that opinion

Take the JPT final where he was dropped for a barely fit (and probably unfit) James Chambers. His behaviour post Wembley was beyond anything anyone could’ve rightfully have expected. He was harshly treated by Dean Smith that afternoon but, in professional and personal disappointment, he was nothing short of magnificent. He could’ve stormed off or sulked, or he could’ve tweeted negatively and burned his bridges a-la Michael Cain but didn’t. He dealt with crushing disappointment in the right manner, won his place back and came close to winning promotion fifteen months later.

That post Wembley period, where he got his head down and fought to regain his place in the side offers an interesting contrast to the position a former physiotherapist took when seeking to turn temporary promotion into full time opportunity. I know which one of them I’d like in my dressing room. Every day, every match, every time.   

It’s also worth noting at this juncture the somewhat forgotten fact that James O’Connor was one of the very few out of contract players to re-sign during the post play off exodus that was summer 2016. Whilst quite a few of Smith’s final incarnation, who hadn’t contributed anywhere near as much as JOC, cashed in on bumper deals for reserve team football elsewhere O’Connor stayed loyal to this football club, agreed terms and re-signed. We can discuss that there would or wouldn’t be many suitors at League 1 level for a player of JOC’s vintage but the fact that someone was desperate enough to treble Paul Downing’s wages should conclusively end that argument.   

And so to today and Jon’s “strong base” & “physical presence”. Eight penalties, zero clean sheets and a general cluelessness when we concede possession suggest things aren’t going particularly swimmingly when we don’t have the ball. Any kind of stability, confidence and rigidity long lost, Dean Smith’s tightly drilled and well organised defensive soundness a distant memory in a fog of inept tackling & abysmal marking. 

Gone also is the play it out from the back style that has so enchanted Saddlers fans over recent times. I sincerely doubt that JOC will miss thumping the ball through the channel in the hope that Simeon Jackson remains onside and proves able to trap a couple of hoofed clearances each 45 minutes. For once.

I also doubt that many Saddlers fans haven’t wondered at least once of late about how we could do with a bit of JOC’s mammoth experience. Because, ridiculously, right at the point where we could do with three or four James O’Connor’s we’ve unceremoniously jettisoned the one we had. It’s hard to believe that even a regime so one dimensionally focused on sweat, application and desire, and I’m not suggesting that O’Connor didn’t demonstrate these values, couldn’t recognise the calming influence that this highly experienced campaigner bought to the party. Let alone quietly and effectively utilise those skills to help us stop conceding quite so many soft goals or handing out penalties like they were toffees.

But he can’t. Because he’s gone.

His final tally of 108 games and two goals – against Chelsea & Colchester – is interesting. Apart from an incredibly shaky debut at Port Vale and the mauling at Bradford I’m not sure I can recall many stand out moments from JOC’s Walsall career. And this is good, because central defenders aren’t supposed to stand out, they’re there keep opponents quiet and clean up errors. The less you see them the more effective they’ve been and in JOC and James Chambers we’ve seen two pretty good ones in this decade.

So, farewell Jimmy. You weren’t the best player I’ve ever seen in a Walsall shirt, neither were you the quickest, nor the most technically gifted or the best positionally. And I’m sorry but you’ll not feature in my all-time Walsall XI (or sixteen).

You were, however, a very good fit in a pretty good side and one selfish managerial resignation (only just) denied you the chance to etch your name in Saddlers folklore as a core member of a team promoted into the second level of English football. You were also a source of experience we dearly miss, reliable, a constant beacon of professionalism and you leave with the deserved respect & admiration of everyone with WFC persuasions fully intact. And that’s something that the guy who cast you aside probably won’t achieve.  

You will be missed – you are already missed – and I wish you well.

James O’Connor – once a Saddler, always a Saddler.

A comparative study of Jon Whitney’s Walsall FC and the Donald Trump Administration

A comparative study of Jon Whitney’s Walsall FC and the Donald Trump Administration

The following piece is intended in *slight* jest, but this blogger has become increasingly frustrated and incredulous at the current goings on at Walsall FC. From no answers about the club’s future, the uncertainty over the pension fund and the lack of any relationship with our glorious leader – to the terrible performances, press conferences and general omnishambles on the pitch, the time is right to highlight some of those in relation to current people and events.

No one divides the world quite like Donald J Trump. Much like a Baboon tearing apart a rabid meerkat, both the Trump administration and Jon Whitney’s Walsall FC are trying their very best to divide their respective supporters/public. I will now briefly introduce some of the key players in the current shenanigans and try to compare their behaviour.

Jon Whitney and Donald J Trump

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Whilst it would be easier to compare Donald Trump with our glorious leader, Mr. Jeffrey Bonser, I am still utterly convinced that Trump is just a puppet to a much wider illuminati (though that is without much evidence and/or logic). Still.. The comparison here is born out of the propensity of both individuals to say ridiculous, and frankly, completely unbelievable things in the Press. Take for instance, Donald trump said the following about his well-unattended inauguration:

“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration, and there will be plenty of movie and entertainment stars. All the dress shops are sold out in Washington. It’s hard to find a great dress for this inauguration.”

Complete delusion, and, though probably slight hyperbole in comparison – parallels Jon Whitney and his increasingly deluded and often-baffling post-match interviews. Take our last match for instance, a draw (and loss on penalties) to League Two Coventry City. After the game JW said: “I thought we saw some tired legs, We knew it when we picked the team and when this game came about. It’s probably a game we didn’t need with the big game against Shrewsbury at the weekend. We have had call-ups and injuries. You look at Jon Guthrie, he has played every single minute going right back into pre-season.”

As many fans have pointed out over social media, pubs and whilst shouting at WM after the game, this was a game played in early October, with 6 players who did not start the game at Wigan. What annoys this blogger, is that this is obvious rubbish and spouted thinking the supporters are thick (I couldn’t think of a more appropriate word).

Further comparisons can be drawn given the egotism of both men. Trump reacts wildly to any positive news, and often ignores or lays scorn to news that is negative. Often ignoring the true facts – as opposed to ‘alternative’ facts. Insert face-palm. Take the 5-1 loss to Rotherham. I was unfortunate enough to be at that game. Whilst a totally inept and unforgivable performance, Jon Whitney refused to acknowledge or even look at the 300 hardy souls who made the trip that evening. He stood on the half way line after the game and did not even turn his head to look at us. Ten or so days later I also attended the superb victory over Oxford United. After the final whistle, JW came over to the fans, fist-punching the air and being generally quite raucous. Fine. My frustration and what leads to a comparison to Donald Trump is that 7 days later, he once again did not even look at the supporters after the game away at Wigan. This speaks of a man who does not take kindly to any criticism, and is supremely defensive of ‘his’ job. A wide range of absurd comments have fallen from Whitney’s mouth, from claiming Bristol Rovers gained an advantage over us by having a man sent off etc. etc. The list goes on. When we win it is ‘I, me, they’ – when we lose it’s ‘them, they’ and excuses.

Dan Mole and Kellyanne Conway

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I like Dan, he has a passion for the club. Much like a herd of Elephants protecting a baby elephant, he also has a strong passion for defending the club and our glorious leader in the face of any criticism – a la Kellyanne Conway, counsellor supreme to Donald Trump. Kellyanne Conway shot to fame with Trump’s campaign for saying when it was clear Trump’s inauguration crowd was much smaller than Barack Obama’s: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.” Alternative facts, of course, meaning falsehoods. The staunch defence of someone in the face of reason and evidence is what made me think of comparing Dan and Kellyanne. Both feverishly good-looking, come out with some wonderful statements. I am picking on Dan slightly here, in light of his comments at the fans focus meeting in pre-season. Dan noted to all, that JW’s plan was change our passing football philosophy to one that ‘builds from a solid base’. A solid base that has not kept a clean sheet all season, has given away a silly amount of penalties and generally looked not very solid. Over to you Dan.

Ashley Wilkinson & Sean Spicer

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Ashley Wilkinson is most like Sean Spicer. Having heard his in-game commentary and refusal to question the management in any, way, shape or form – must lead to us equating him with the former US Press Secretary. As alluded to earlier, Mr Spicer famously said that Trump’s inauguration was the most attended in history, ever – despite it not being, quite clearly. Ashley has come in for some criticism of his love for Liverpool on social media platforms, something he has seemingly counteracted in recent days with a new private account in addition to his twitter account being solely about Walsall. Walsall FC is the antithesis of clubs like Liverpool, where money and glory-hunting reign supreme.

Ian Sharps & James “Mad-Dog” Mattis

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James “Mad-Dog” Mattis is the current US secretary of Defence. Staunchly pro-Trump, a retired former US General, Mattis is known for his abrasive nature and fiery quotes. Mattis has made many bold comments in his time, some quite aggressive, some slightly unbelievable, but the general mantra of the ‘Mad-Dog’ is a forceful take-no-prisoners approach to US Defence. Much like Mattis, Walsall -under Sharps direction as defensive coach- seem to have adopted a similarly aggressive policy, by making sure we attack opposition players legs, man-handle them, and give away countless penalties. The US defence has not faired well in recent world conflicts, and similarly our defence this season has been as leaky as an unstanched wench (The Tempest). What is Sharps bringing to the table exactly…. other than the ability to ship in goals at a rate of knots.

Jeff Bonser & Cthulu, Lord of the Underworld and the Catastrophe

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The end of time, matter and all creation. Can we have our land back please? Small note: Cthulu doesn’t exist.

season preview 2017/18

Oh, Walsall FC. I can’t make up my mind whether we are shrouded in tragedy, comedy or both. To paraphrase Malcolm Tucker, if it looks like an omnishambles and sounds like an omnishambles then it probably is, well, frustrating to say the least. Frustrating because the ghosts of 2015/16 still haunt us, and we are trying to make sense of whether that season was simply an aberration in a long period of stagnation. This is reflected in our extended period of mid-table obscurity in League 1, the steady-state of the Club’s debt-burden, the on-going rent payments and lack of control of the freehold, and the relationship between Walsall FC and Walsall FC Ltd..

In light of this, pre-season has been infected with questions about the Club’s identity and strategy on/off the pitch. We remember Buckley, Nicoll, Graydon and Money, and wonder how it has come to this; indeed will it always come to this? Will our past successes always be ghosts haunting our apparently-never-ending attempt to secure 12th place in League 1? Or maybe this is too despairing and unrealistic; to quote Prospero in The Tempest “Let us not burthen our remembrance with a heaviness that’s gone.” It was ever-thus, so suck-it-up.

There are a few season previews online now, including the excellent pizza-topped-discusssion over at One Pod Beyond. Below, Daz Fellows, Darren Rhodes and Richard Hall discuss the following: 1. Season expectations (has this changed since the end of the last season?). 2. Analysis of the club’s pre-season business 3. Analysis of the Club’s statement to the Trust 4. Where do you feel that the club is going? 5. Any other business.


Season Expectations (has this changed since the end of last season)

Daz: 10 games without a win and three defeats from four wasn’t anything like the right way to finish last season and adds unnecessary pressure on everyone from day 1.

Personally I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have a change of manager, and probably sooner rather than later.

Almost all of April was wasted as Whitney tried to blend his fawning over loan-players who were never remotely likely to return with the ripest fruits from the club’s youth system. Disguised as “learning”, this was a shambolic attempt at budgetary sabre rattling that appears to have significantly backfired.

I also don’t think you need a degree in psychology to see that there’s an issue with senior professionals and the manager. The warning signs were there from the very beginning and his consistent outing of players both collectively and (barely disguised) individually will do nothing to improve what appears from the outside to be a hopeless situation.

Isaiah Osbourne didn’t bother hiding his distain, openly burning his bridges as he exited The Banks’s when admitting that he couldn’t play for the manager. And whilst we shouldn’t deal in rumour, it’s impossible to not take notice of the common undercurrent when players depart. Money (or the lack of it) rarely appeared to be the issue that it is today when Dean Smith was manager. Money, I suspect, is an easy excuse for both parties.

Smoke always gives away where the fire is and I feel that there’s a bit too much smoke around Whitney.

James O’Connor is the latest to suffer the manager’s indignation, cast aside like a leaking bucket on the eve of this season. Consider the professional manner that JOC conducted himself on the back of brutally being dropped at Wembley, forcing himself into his manager’s plans rather than sulking and then wonder why the rumours of Whitney/JOC bust ups won’t go away.

Whitney singled him out a few times last years and never was this more evident than after the final game vs Milton Keynes. For a player contracted to the club there is little right of reply, particularly after the final game of the season and given Whitney’s own performance in March & April, this smacked of blame diversion rather a lot more than it did of constructive criticism. By all means wear your heart on your sleeve Jon, just make sure it’s not confused for a chip on the shoulder or a thin skin.

And so, a few weeks on we’ve now got to the unedifying position where a senior player, someone who’s given this club some decent service over the past few years, was so publicly barred from appearing in the team photo. I have no issue in Whitney having a quiet word and letting his player know the score, it’s he who will live and die by results. But discussing with the papers and then keeping the lad off the team photo? That’s move every bit as pathetic as it ever was unnecessary.

For what it’s worth, given that if JOC resists being offloaded it appears unlikely that Matt Preston can be retained, I’d stick it out if I was O’Connor and gamble on a new pair of eyes picking the team in the not too distant future. If the situation remains the same in January then there’s an 18 month deal waiting somewhere for a man of his ability.

Elsewhere, with no new striker (strangely they don’t appear to fancy us), no more creativity in midfield and with Oztumer looking less settled than a giant boulder on the edge on one of Dick Dastardly’s wooden planks I’d suggest that goals are going to be at least as hard to come by as they were last season and away wins equally as rare. Outside the starting XI the squad looks utterly threadbare and the desperate, almost deluded reliance on youth, is beyond a concern. April proved that they were nowhere near ready.

Offer me 20th place right now and I’d snatch your hand off.

Darren: The final game of the season saw heavily trounced by an illegitimate club from Milton Keynes. Whilst angry and upset, over not only that performance, but the preceding 10 games or so’s non-performances, I still thought we would probably finish around 10th-12th in the coming season. This was primarily based on keeping the squad together, but solving the goal scoring issue – and generally improving the squad.

However…

My expectations for the season have plunged to a ‘survival’ mentality. I am completely flabbergasted at the amateur, inept, incompetent and utterly bewildering mismanagement of the budget, squad and players of this football club over the summer. We have conspired to go from promotion contenders to (it looks like) relegation battlers in 18 months.

Jon Whitney has alienated quality players at this level, built a unbalanced squad and not addressed the problems from last season. The one positive, is that I think there are 4 teams worse than us this season, and for that reason I expect us to finish around 14th-18th – and I am not happy about that. I can only hope I am wrong. I also expect Jon not to be our manager by October.

Richard: I expect that we will be in a relegation dogfight. I would like to find it incomprehensible that a Board which acted relatively quickly and cleanly in removing O’Driscoll feels it does not need to act similarly over Whitney. In this case I wonder what the Board gain by keeping him in post, and what they feel can be achieved given: the abysmal end to last season; the manager’s apparent inability to recruit to key positions; the manager’s naiveté in alienating senior professionals and his naming-and-shaming of players in public; his tactical limitations and the claims that his style of play is not what the Board want; and the apparent lack of provision of a mentor for such an early-career manager. I find the logic behind the Club’s stated claim (at the Fans’ Forum) that the minimum is a top-half finish, and that hopefully we will be pushing for promotion, baffling.

So, if anything, my expectations have lowered. In my end-of-season review in April I noted that: “We are likely to have to rebuild again, so what has Whitney/the Club’s management learned this year that they can take into next?” This is potentially a stronger division than least season, and I struggle to see how our limited squad, with so few goals in it, so little cover in key positions, and so very over-reliant on Oztumer, will survive. I am extremely concerned that by the January window, we will be playing catch-up in a way makes 2010/11 look like a walk in the park. Hoping that there are 4 worse teams in the Division is high-risk and no way to go into a season.

One final point about this is that there appears to be limited governance in place to modify the manager’s behaviour. The James O’Connor farrago is a useful case-in-point here. Professional football is a pretty small world, and I assume that the manager’s media statements and his treatment of senior professionals will not go unnoticed. I struggle to find any joy in the thought of this approach to people being part of the identity of the Club I have followed for almost 40 years. It’s why I think governance is so important.


Analysis of the club’s pre-season business.

Daz: Baffling. Chaotic. Clouded. Take your pick.

Firstly, the Club have done relatively well with the loss cutting exercise of offloading Andreas Makris. Monday’s Fan’s Focus meeting touched more than once on the direction of the fee and whilst I don’t think the question was ever answered unequivocally it was apparent that Whitney’s budget won’t see all of the recouped value, even though the original fee had already been subject to the 50% infrastructure cut. Which is frustrating.

Recruitment, as a stand-alone subject, appears to have gone OK in the areas recruited. We won’t know for sure until games get competitive but Whitney’s rebuilt back line looks both decent and from what I’ve seen so far they look better organised. You never quite know how good your new goalkeeper is until he’s under the kind of pressure you don’t get in pre-season games but on paper it’s promising.

That we haven’t done any business anywhere else is disconcerting however, particularly given how lightweight we were with the ball last season. That 99 out of 100 responses to @saddlersstats recent twitter survey suggested midfield & attack (14% & 85% respectively) were in most need of attention demonstrates the blindingly obvious fact that we all know where we’re woefully short. Gamble & Mole insist that the budget for a striker is there but these are the very final moments of the summer jumble sale and I worry that the good stuff disappeared from the tables a long time ago.

In the space of 15 months we’ve gone from these two teams. Something that’s every bit as shocking as it is miserable.

May 2016

Etheridge

Demetriou/O’Connor/Downing/Henry

Forde/Chambers/Lalkovic/Morris

Sawyers

Bradshaw

August 2017

Gillespie

Devlin/Wilson/Guthrie/Leahy

Edwards/Chambers/Cuvelier/Morris

Oztumer

Jackson

Darren: Well, well, well – where do I begin? As alluded to previously – we have managed to reduce the quality in our squad, and at the same time, spend more. Unbelievable. After re-reading this section, I am acutely aware the following may come across as a slightly disjointed rant. I apologise for this as I did not know where to begin, or even link some of the bizarre things that have been happening this pre-season, but please bear with me.

Back in March of this year, Jon Whitney said he was already preparing for the forthcoming season and actually said: “I don’t want to be in a position where I have to spend the entire summer recruiting”. We are now sat here, in August, with an incomplete, unbalanced squad and still recruiting players. Not only are we still recruiting new players, we are still trying to tie up a deal from one of our own players from last season!

Incredibly, despite apparently planning the campaign in March, we have alienated James O’Connor a week before the season starts. JOC did not have a stellar 2016/17, but he is an important experienced player at this level, and the decision to jettison a player a week before the season begins without having any more first team defenders signed up is mind boggling. The rumours of Whitney falling out with senior players has persisted all along his tenure, so this news was not surprising… But worrying.

It appears Whitney abandoned his plans to play 352 sometime in June and instead move to a 442 formation – recruiting more physically imposing centre halves. I think Guthrie and Wilson look great signings, but my frustration and confusion lies in the shape of the squad as a whole. It seems to me like Whitney spent his budget on defenders in order to tweak and improve his 352. This is a squad built to play 352, but is now remarkably playing 442. Joe Edwards is not a left winger. Kieron Morris does not give you pace and width. Oztumer is completely wasted playing very high up either just behind a central striker, or in some cases this pre-season, as an out and out centre forward. Adam Chambers cannot play 46 games a season again. Flo will most likely get injured. What on earth happens if one of those two gets injured? A midfield pairing of Flanagan and Adam Chambers makes me shudder. Who plays left wing if Edwards is injured or moved? Similarly, who is our back up right winger? My mystic prophecy is that by around 5 games into the season, Whitney would have abandoned the 442 in favour of a 352.

Last season, we scored the 6th least amount of goals in the division – with the 4 teams scoring the least getting relegated. It was a primary and absolute necessity to address our attacking options this summer. To have not signed one attacking player all summer is criminal. Whilst we absolutely do need a centre forward, solving a striker will not solve our issues. This is a squad full of battlers. Our midfield four of Edwards, Chambers, Flo and Morris is way too narrow and offers little threat. This squad needs a left winger, another central midfielder, probably another right winger, and a centre forward. I have no reason to distrust what Stefan and Dan said the other day regarding this being the biggest budget we have had in this division, but Whitney has confessed he has spent (and paid more) of his budget on 5 defenders. That was his decision, and it will come to pass very quickly if that was the right choice.

We seem to have taken a stance against loans this season (conveniently missing the fact our player of the season was a loanee). Whilst I am against teams full of loanees, I think accentuating the squad with some quality loans is a good course of action.

In sum, I am dazzled by the lack of foresight and planning shown by our management team over the summer. I hope I am severely wrong, but that squad is going to struggle.

Richard: I understand why the defence needed to be rebuilt. We spent much of last season struggling to defend crosses and dead-balls, and not being strong enough to dominate opposition attacks. However, defending is a team activity, and when things are going wrong its root often lies in a dysfunctional midfield. Whist many of our concerns have focused on the lack of goals and lack of recruitment of a striker, my primary apprehension lies in what the loss of (and failure to replace) Isaiah Osborne represents. We now lack a dominant midfield force either to act as a breaker/defensive shield, or to give us the drive to go box-to-box. I do not see the return of Reece Flanagan as the equivalent of a midfield signing that gives us sufficient options. Or are we simply hoping that Edwards overcomes his limitations, that Cuvelier stays fit for the whole season, and that Morris fires?

The loss of Osborne reflects on the nature of the Club’s man-management, its lack of leadership options on the pitch, and our apparent distrust of experienced professionals who are likely to question. However, our approach to recruitment also demonstrates the sub-prime limitations of the depth-and-quality of the squad, as this handy little graphic from Saddlers Stats shows. We are so thread-bare, and so desperately reliant on Oztumer for any attacking threat. We need to rebuild again and yet we haven’t in key areas; and I wonder what the Board have been saying to Whitney about this.

It should also be noted that whilst we have recruited in order to overhaul the defence, we have also witnessed the Scott Laird and Preston/JOC shambles, which mean that we may now struggle to have the option to play three at the back. The summer’s recruitment leaves me doubting that we have the ability to shift formations in-or-between games, and that we have the cover to make such shifts work. This is especially the case given the over-reliance on youth in the squad, and the level of inexperience.


Analysis of the Club’s statement to the Trust.

Daz: Comedy gold. Probably somewhere between Lance Corporal Jones’s “Don’t panic!” and Baldrick Turnip’s “I have a cunning plan”. The contradiction of the manager’s Solihull Moors comments and the suggestion Whitney had helped craft the later ‘official’ statement would’ve been laughable had it not been quite so serious. Indeed, that they had to pull the carpet from under their most senior first team employee in such a way is shocking really. And despite Mole & Gamble’s protestations at the Focus meeting that they were unaware of Whitney’s comments, the fact the club felt the need to emphasise that Whitney was involved in the creation of the statement is telling.

They’re not daft and it’s not like you need to scratch the surface too deeply to uncover the unrest below it, so I guess it was better to make at something constructive than let the owner unleash his inner Alsatian and scatter the bullets of blame in all directions. To be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter happens sooner rather than later, because history tends to help us identify the signs, but attempting a constructive and unequivocal statement was the right way to go.

Yes we can argue about the content and whether they’ve applied Theresa May & Justine Greening’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘biggest ever budget’ or not but (whilst I know we’ve still got a striker to possibly arrive) if we’ve spent more on this squad than any other then I worry for next season as well as this one.

Darren: It has been a summer of contradictions and miscommunications. Jon Whitney told supporters (and hinted during the press) that he had spent most of his budget on his 5 signings thus far. This was in direct contradiction to the statement made by the club, claiming that there is money available. The most Donald Trump moment of this summer was Whitney then claiming he had a hand in that statement that directly contradicted himself! This leaves a couple of scenarios. 1. Jon Whitney was talking rubbish. 2. The club are talking rubbish. This leads me to believe Jon was either talking too much, or has misunderstood once again how to talk to people. I am absolutely certain, most of the discontent directed at JW would be much less if he had not said all of the ridiculous things he says in the press. My personal favourite from last season, being the time he claimed the reason we weren’t very good at defending set pieces was due to children at school not being taught how to head the ball. No words.

Richard: I am unsurprised and that is what is most frustrating. There is limited dialogue between the Club and its supporters about governance and strategy, and we are left wondering both about the relationship between manager and Board, and about the Board’s ambition for the Club. Witness the Fan’s Forum statements from Mole and Gamble about the rent, the lease/freehold, and the future, including discussion of a ground relocation. Along with the statement to the Trust, the Forum raised so many questions that are and will be left unaddressed because there is no meaningful supporter-involvement in the running of the Club.

I notice that the Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto included the following pledge:

Put fans at the heart of their clubs – by legislating for accredited supporters trusts to be able to appoint and remove at least two club directors and to purchase shares when clubs change hands. We will also review fan participation in sports governance more widely.

I do not have a utopian belief in the role of supporters at football clubs that do not operate as co-operatives. However, until such a pledge comes into force, we will continue to struggle with making sense of governance and strategy and the information flows inside our own clubs and in football in general. The key here is meaningful, co-operative dialogue that involves supporters as producers of their clubs.


Where do you feel that the club is going?

Daz: Bury, then Sheffield. I think this is gloomy enough without pointing out the blindingly obvious.

What I will add is that I like Gamble & Mole, they at least try to bond everyone together and provide a chink of light in what looks a particularly long tunnel. Mole’s social media presence goes beyond what we have a right to expect and some of the rubbish thrown his way is neither nice of particularly called for. Both he & Gamble are two of the few upgrades we’ve achieved in personnel in recent times and retained. Given the opportunity I think they’d do a pretty good job of uniting the place. Sadly they’re the mouthpiece, someone else grinds the organ.

Darren: Whilst frustrating, this club had a philosophy and an identity under Dean Smith. We were known for cultivating a progressive passing football style, with a squad with, dare I say… “NO NOBHEADS”. I went to the Fans Focus Meeting, and it was extremely clear that the style of football being played under JW is not what the board expected or desire. There was no ringing endorsement of his tenure or his football philosophy. To be fair, I don’t think we are a true 1996 Chesterfield style side as of yet, but we have signed players and organised ourselves to play channel hoof-ball. I.e. get the ball to the full backs and launch it down the channel…. To Simeon Jackson (Too short for majority of these balls)… To Erhun Oztumer (When he is that far up….and pointless)…. Or Amadou Bakayoko (Despite being 6ft 4 can’t win headers). This is not entertaining, and is in direct opposition to the football philosophy this club wants to build for itself. The influence of John Beck on JW is for all to see, and coupled with all of our coaches being defensive-minded, it’s actually not surprisingly we are as creative as a hand full of dirt picked by John Major. So where do I think the club is going? Backwards is one answer. I love what Jon has done for this club, and despite quite a visceral evaluation of his managerial abilities in this blog, I don’t want his legacy to be tarnished. I am hoping that if we do struggle (I hope we don’t!), then we put Jon out of his misery and take him out of the firing line. I hope we can hit the reset button at some point and go back to building a footballing style and philosophy everyone can buy into, be that the players, board, and most importantly, the fans.

Richard: In writing about fragmentation last season I wrote:

And I recognise the contingencies between football club and limited company. And I try to see the connection and the alignment, and the strategic relationship. And I respect the business and commercial decisions that are made in an increasingly competitive football market.

And I recognise the compromises that must be made.

Yet on the terraces, conditioned by these compromises, we question whether last year’s success was a one-off that absolutely required promotion at the end of the 5 year plan, in order that it could be re-produced or sustained? In some way, were we all-in with this plan, and was it so dependent on Dean Smith, so that once he left we were all played out? If so, is there a new contingency plan and what due diligence is being done to ensure that continuity can be maintained rather than our having to rebuild again? What is the strategy for the Club now? What does success for Walsall Football Club look like for Walsall FC Ltd?

It’s almost impossible to say where the Club is going, but surely this can’t be what we call progress?


Any other business

Daz: Apart from the obvious stadium leasehold/rent issue, our identity.

Who are we? What is the club’s identity?

And if you want any proof of our loss of identity, then look no further than the board’s insecurity of who we are and consider their branding of the Stadium Suite as “WFC – The Venue. Birmingham-Walsall”.

Birmingham-Walsall? Where the fuck is that?

And be in no doubt, if the hierarchy aren’t confident in brand Walsall, and they can’t believe in the name, the geography or the pride of who we are then we’re knackered, because apart from the hardcore 3000, no-one else will either. #BirminghamWalsall #MyClubMyTown? #iBelieve? #MyArse

For many of us, particularly the Fellows Parkers amongst us, we were the ultimate Cup fighters. The team nobody else wanted to draw. FP could be an absolute cauldron of noise and aggression and never was this better emphasised than when we pulled out a decent name in the cup. Everyone knows about 1933 but a lot of us were weaned and schooled on other, less celebrated, floodlight enhanced Fellows Park afternoons & evenings of epic cup fighting, near misses and glory. Big names, big egos and big reputations frequently smashed to bits by a club that developed its own players and loved nothing more than to upset the apple cart. Need a bonfire pissing on? We did it better than most.

And whilst Bescot has seen a few over the years, with Forest, Sheffield Utd & Leeds immediately springing to mind, it been far too long since we strung a few cup results together and rattled our sabres. Money has no doubt changed the balance and you’re more likely to face a scratch team from one of the big clubs but if, as we’ve proved far too often of late, if you don’t make it into rounds 3 & 4 the chances of a decent draw are small.

Maybe the current climate means we’re a small fish, even in the lower leagues, but that shouldn’t stop us re-finding who we are, what we are and what we do best. Football shouldn’t just be about balancing the books and 50/50 infrastructure splits on our sporadic “Football Fortunes”. They’re clearly the right things to do but they’re nothing without the occasional glory night, the oxygen that keeps you going.

The clue is in the name – we’re a football club and we should never forget it.

Darren: I wanted to quickly highlight a few other things that need addressing in the coming weeks and months. If ever there was a time for our glorious leader to make his presence known and shown some leadership, it would have been this summer… Either through attending a fans forum or giving a (controlled) interview. Where is Jeff? At a time where the clubs fans are rightly frustrated at where the club is at, this as the chance for Jeff to show some leadership and allay the fears of the clubs supporters. Dare I say, he could have also helped Jon out by strongly endorsing him. Neither of those things have happened, and we are left in the dark about the feelings of our glorious overlord. Questions still remain over the pension fund, and as Stefan Gamble confirmed the other evening, we need to start thinking about the future and what happens next. What is the long-term strategy for owning the freehold, or moving in 11 years time when the lease ends?

Richard: What this pre-season has shown is division or a lack of a shared agenda between manager and certain players, manager and supporters, manager and Board (maybe?), alongside renewed questions of identity, strategy, leasehold/freehold, the ground/rent. These issues also highlight the potential gulf between supporters and Board. Mid-table League 1, in an ageing ground on which we pay significant rent with little optimism for the future, is a pretty poor spectacle (or circus, if, like me, you subscribe to the idea that football is bread and circuses and nothing more). My hope from all this is the generation of a renewed, co-operative engagement between Club and fans. However, this means that supporters need to find their voice in challenging the Club about these issues. The place to start is through a meaningful engagement by supporters with the Trust.

A One Hit Wonder

So, blessedly, it’s over. A damage limiting conclusion that offers all parties a credible way out of a bold and ambitious gamble that never looked like a convincing investment for a club as risk averse as Walsall are.

316 days of toil, 35 near anonymous appearances and, if the leaked fees are to be believed, one hundred thousand Euros of investment pissed up the wall that, in fairness, did provide the single most memorable Banks’s Stadium moment of 2016/16. Two months on and the relief of that goal is still palpable.

To be honest, I’d drawn my conclusions as early as the September visit to Bristol Rovers and they never really changed. “I think we’ve done our money” was about the size of my summation when discussing our new signing with a friend. He concurred with the rather damning “He’d struggle in the Conference.” At that point Makris had played 323 minutes of football in a Walsall shirt and with the exception of his first touch at Oldham, he never looked remotely comfortable or convincing. He was already looking lost and in dire need of a goal.

Not that he lasted long at The Memorial ground either. As Neil Etheridge produced one of those early season miracle clean sheets that no doubt persuaded Cardiff to bid for him Makris cut a lonely figure on John Whitney’s bench, having departed after 36 rather anonymous minutes. Officially withdrawn injured, it was already clear that League 1 was just that bit too physical, too quick and too much of a step up from the comforts of a one-paced Cypriot top division.

Where Makris had previously found easy pickings and sluggish defending, he was bullied and brutally exposed by a rough arsed, well drilled but nothing special Rovers back four.  

The best bits, goal-laced YouTube video we’d all seen had suggested we were about to be thrilled. Deft touches, the exploitation of abundances of space, defenders left chasing shadows and more than a few tidy finishes. A Cypriot season encapsulated in 117 seconds of camera cuts and slo-mo replays. But could he do it on a Tuesday night in Bristol?

No, was the answer. And it was every bit as emphatic as it was brutal. 

The lad may have picked up a slight knock but there was no suggestion of looking to run it off or playing through whatever pain or discomfort was there. From where I was, it appeared like he couldn’t get off quick enough.

Despite featuring regularly throughout his time at Walsall, it was from this point that Makris began drifting out of his manager’s starting plans and the appearances became increasing fleeting. Ten minutes here and the odd twenty there were interspersed by a series of clock wasting cameos when Whitney had a point or three he decided he’d attempt to hang onto.

Credit at this point should go to the Saddlers faithful, who in having their hopes and excitement built up by the Buckleyesque transfer fee stayed fully behind the lad, despite it being clear he wasn’t a particularly Buckleyesque footballer. And whilst the songs weren’t completely sarcasm free, there was also a clear sense that they were warm and willing. The desire from everyone to turn this around was obvious and we stuck with him, loyalty blending with sympathy and willing, to the very end.

And so to that moment. The moment. Oxford at home and a split-second interlude amid 90 minutes of the very lowest quality that would have lived short in the memory but for the edge of the box volley that almost lifted the roof off the old place. Both on and off the pitch the celebrations edged toward the epic side of excitable, a mixture of relief and delight encompassed three sides of a stadium delighted for their lad. A one hit wonder that’s up there with Whigfield, Karl Douglas and The Buggles. Never again could they say he hadn’t scored for Walsall. 

A few minutes later he was sat on the bench again after his manager had substituted him, suggesting he legs had gone. Even at that moment, his highest point, he was sacrificable. Despite his team being woefully hamstrung by a chronic lack of kings, queens and rooks, our record signing was always one of Whitney’s pawns. 

Four more starts followed, including a (rare) full 90 minute appearance on the final day but he never looked remotely likely to double his tally and his half time withdrawal after dreadfully anonymous 45 minutes at Coventry was probably the final straw for his equally struggling manager.

Hindsight demonstrates this in his omission from Whitney’s experimental line up again Port Vale. On an evening that the manager publicly looked towards the future, Makris spent the entire evening bench warming as a succession of home grown youngsters staked their claim for 2017/18 consideration. We hadn’t realised it and, to their credit, the Club kept their cards out of sight and made all the right noises but the selections that evening demonstrated his time was already up.

That even Jon Whitney knew that he wasn’t good enough arguably tells you all you need to know.

Despite all of the above and the barbed comment about his manager I think it was pretty evident that Makris improved substantially during his time in England. You could see that significant work went into the lad over the winter; his touch improved, he dealt with the physicality better and his movement and positioning, particularly when we had possession, was chalk & cheese in comparison to that (not) on offer in the autumn. 

Similarly, his struggle was undoubtedly compounded by the fact that as a regular replacement for Erhun Oztumer and a number 10 himself, Makris tended to play when our chief creator wasn’t on the field of play. Where those around him occasionally feasted on Oztumer’s incisive intricacy, Makris was starved. And when they both played we were just too lightweight up front and the ball rarely stuck long enough to craft anything. The excellent @SaddlersStats confirms that only twice did they both start and finish a game and across the remaining 44 league games they shared just 504 minutes. There was simply no place for both of them.

Increasingly, professional football is an unforgiving and particularly brutal circus with sentiment and patience being long lost qualities in a business engulfed in a results now mentality. Rarely will you see this more blatantly demonstrated as in the career curves of Oztumer & Makris. Erhun delivered grandly and the rewards of a new deal (here or elsewhere) will be high, Andreas didn’t and has been offloaded at the first realistic opportunity. Whilst we criticise the likes of O’Donnell & Etheridge for leaving on the back of a decent season or two, the club have shown that they can and will be equally mercenary. This isn’t a a criticism – regrettably it’s how it works these days.

But – let’s be honest – none of this is the fault of Makris. Offered a similar opportunity, every single one of us would’ve given it a go. For all its faults and problems, English football, even at L1 level is an undoubted attraction. The pavements outside the Banks’s tend to be more heavily littered with McDonalds packaging than they ever have with gold but get things right and a move to the filthy lucre will eventually follow. It was a chance that Makris couldn’t refuse and was right to go for. 

However, this was also a signing that stank of a deal to pacify the faithful and soothe the sores created by the cut price sale of Tom Bradshaw, the loss of Romaine Sawyers, the summer exodus and the imminent departure of Rico Henry. I accept that Henry didn’t leave until almost a month later but I’m not buying the suggestion that they didn’t remotely suspect what was coming. These thing just don’t happen overnight and being honest, had Henry not been injured at Oldham he’d have likely been gone earlier than he did. That this club, with their record of player investment, concluded that they needed a marquee signing probably underlines the pressure they were under. By their actions, they realised the urgent need to be seen to doing something.

The problem was (and is) that six figure investments generally require a wage structure to match, so they needed an inventive solution. Step forward Mr Makris, a relatively unknown starlet in one of European football’s minnow leagues. This solution offered the chance to flash a bit of cash without having to fork out anywhere near the level of wage that record breaking transfer deals generally demand. 

They had us all for fools, and to a point, the majority of us fell for it. Drop a few quid, pacify the restless and hope that nobody notices that nothing ever changes. Textbook Walsall, attempting to do expensive on the cheap. 

The lack of communication on his departure has also said much. Yet again we were late to the press-release party with the deal leaked early by the purchasing club (will we ever bloody learn?). And when official confirmation finally arrived, it was vintage Walsall in its brevity and a million miles from the oodles of social media and web content that celebrated his arrival.

Minimalist in content and the usual dogmatic unwillingness to discuss a fee was, unsurprisingly, pretty shoddy. For a club so intrinsically programmed to ensure that everyone knows that they make a small profit each and every year, their refusal to discuss transfer fees is almost laughably antithetical and senseless. Particularly when it appears that they’d fairly impressively extricated themselves from a €300000 hole.

Likewise the autocratic “there will be no further comment” at the conclusion of the press release said much about where thoughts were on supporter reaction. Don’t ask, don’t question, none of your business, shut up.

My Club. My Town. My Arse. 

As a side note, there’ll be another of these heart-string tugging straplines to accompany next year’s early bird offer. When it comes, and it will, I’ll be diluting the emotional bullshit by recalling the “there will be no further comment” line.

So, antío Andreas. It wasn’t to be. You took Alan Buckley’s transfer record but fell 203 short of his goal tally.  I sense that history will place you in the same memory cache as Billy Bescot, inflatable swifts and Terry Ramsden’s turkeys but not everyone can be an Andy Rammell, irrespective of how much people wanted you to be so. You weren’t Simon Osborne either, so it’s not all bad. Momentarily you gave us all hope and I thank you for that and wish you well.

Right now, I just pray we don’t have to wait another 37 years before your transfer record is broken.